Scorpio Falling: Masculinity, Media & Murder in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (part 2)
Part II: I will follow him
(Note: This article reveals the ending of the 2017 Twin Peaks revival)
The zeitgeist of the 60's is certainly no stranger to the idea of a dark side to masculinity. Such is the subject of Kenneth Anger’s landmark experimental short film, Scorpio Rising, a piece which appears prophetic in retrospect.
Scored exclusively with pop songs and containing no dialogue, Scorpio opens with a series of seemingly innocuous scenes of motorcycle enthusiasts preparing for a night out on the town. They fetishistically tend to their bikes and their looks, a winking, mild homoeroticism accentuating their preening. Images of James Dean and Brando flash by while Elvis croons, masculine idols all.
Things take a turn when we meet Scorpio, a meth-snorting motorcyclist with a noose casually hanging from his ceiling. After he heads to a party with his fellow bikers, the revelry devolves into hazing and growing hints of sexuality, distorted animal sounds interrupting the musical soundtrack. Soon, Scorpio’s leather jacket and pants begin to evoke totalitarian and fascist imagery.
In the penultimate sequence, Scorpio breaks into an abandoned church. As “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March blares, he hangs a Nazi flag over the alter as stills of Hitler and Third Reich rallies intercut with the main action, punctuated with moments taken from a Sunday school film about Jesus. Scorpio pulls down his pants and pisses into his helmet, offering it as a blasphemous communion. The movie ends with a biker dying at a race, thrown from his motorcycle.
Anger suggests that even innocent pop imagery can unintentionally create a ritual of sex and death when used in a certain way. The bikers are not cognizant of this, but their fetishizing of masculine toughness is, when taken to the extreme, a pagan form of death worship.
They summon destruction with this energy, their raw masculinity harnessed and sharpened in a manner which gives way to the trappings of fascism, itself a form of devotion to masculine power. Songs such as “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “He’s A Rebel,” “You’re the Devil in Disguise,” and “I Will Follow Him” indicate a codependent relationship with this primacy, locked in the embrace of a death spiral.
It can’t be overstated how prescient this vision was, as it correctly predicts the endpoint of the 60's, when pop culture and the hippie movement give birth to the brand of totalitarian power worship which creates the Manson Family. (A point only further solidified with Anger’s 1969 film Invocation of My Demon Brother, a combination magic ritual/Vietnam war protest. The short features Manson cult member Bobby Beausoleil as Lucifer, in footage filmed several years before Beausoleil’s imprisonment for murdering Gary Hinman. Beausoleil would later go on to score Anger’s experimental epic Lucifer Rising).
Charles Manson himself, while ostensibly a countercultural figure, does not fall outside the shadow of this darker masculinity. Leading a sect wherein he’s mainly revered by young girls who serviced him sexually and did his every bidding, it’s quite clear Manson’s primary investment as a self-appointed messiah was in the accompanying power trip. Manson dreamed of life as a famous musician, blaming his subsequent failure on people such as Dennis Wilson. In an odd parallel to Rick Dalton, he’s a frustrated celebrity, just from the end of the stick that never broke into the industry.
Tarantino keeps Charles Manson’s role in the film relegated to one appearance, which thankfully avoids the deification of Manson that sometimes occurs when exploiting his persona in works of entertainment. The scene alludes to the fact that Manson has a score to settle in Hollywood, a grudge that would one day claim lives. Tarantino also eschews exploring the psychology of the Manson cult, leaving their ill-defined beliefs about a race war and Manson’s David Koresh-like persona unmentioned.
Kenneth Anger is a practicing occultist, a factor which occasionally brought him into the periphery of Manson’s circle, as Manson dabbled in esoteric mysticism (mostly to amp up his own egomania). While Tarantino has never betrayed an interest in the occult — and while it’s unclear what if any admiration he may have for Anger’s work — he still remains influenced by films such as Scorpio Rising, even if indirectly.
Aside from traditional musicals, Anger is one of the first filmmakers to use pop music in lieu of an orchestral score. By taking the techniques of avant-garde montage and setting it to radio hits, he more or less invented some of the first music videos.
This inspired filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and John Waters, all of whom have had some measure of impact upon Tarantino, known for the prodigious use of vintage and modern pop music in his films. (It also opened the door for movies such as 1969’s Easy Rider . . . another biker tale to use a pop/rock score, and another meditation on masculinity in the 60's, as well as a prime example of the counterculture challenge to the Hollywood system).
While it may seem a stretch to connect Quentin Tarantino to the lineage of someone like Kenneth Anger, one need only look at Tarantino’s original written script for Natural Born Killers to see him utilizing much of the same cultural touchstones as Scorpio Rising.
The story is adorned with the exact type of tough guy cliches used in Anger’s film, there are references to Elvis and James Dean and the style of 60's pop music featured on the Scorpio soundtrack, and discussions abound about serial killers and mass murderers, including Charles Manson.
Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Tarantino’s script kept much of this material, but tailored to suit his own sensibilities. Yet, given Stone’s hallucinogenic style at this point in his career — quite similar to Anger with its quick-cut montages and collages of image and sound and popular music, all drenched in psychedelic imagery — it only served to enhance and build upon the parallels with Scorpio Rising in Quentin Tarantino’s version. But for a purer look at Tarantino’s intentions, the original screenplay provides its own unique read.
In both versions, the character of Mickey morphs into a Manson-like figure, espousing a Darwinian view of humanity — peppered with the same style of messianic but crudely imaginative observations for which Charles Manson was known, especially in Geraldo Rivera’s grandstanding, self-righteous disaster of an interview with him — as Mickey justifies the remorseless killing of anyone he deems worthy of being his victim.
Like the characters of Scorpio Rising, Mickey is awash in the tropes of the macho bad boy, stylizing his persona after people like Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, and Charles Bronson. Though his relationship with partner in crime Mallory is shown to be tender and romantic, Mickey is a walking stereotype of masculine posturing taken to the most ridiculous extreme.
This corresponds with Mickey’s origins: he first appeared in The Open Road, an early screenplay written by Tarantino, and a rewrite of a draft by his friend Roger Avary about a young couple on the run from the law. Also the progenitor of True Romance, the story revolves around lovers Clarence and Alabama as they flee both the police and a network of mobsters. During their time on the road, Clarence works on a script about Mickey and Mallory, fictionalized versions of him and Alabama. Similar to the relationship between Rick and Cliff, Mickey Knox is Clarence’s idealized, ultra-masculine fantasy of himself, lacking Clarence’s own mundane flaws and uncertainties. A natural born killer.
Traits of this character would later be repurposed by Tarantino for Basterds’ Lt. Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt’s first collaboration with the director. Like Mickey, Raine is a violent redneck sadist stalking through the countryside with his Bowie knife, always leaving one person alive to spread his self-created mythology.
The difference here is that he’s trying to defeat the Nazis instead of merely killing for fun, but in many ways Raine remains a variation of Mickey Knox dressed in a WWII costume, a subversion of the classic war hero image. (Mallory Knox would later be reincarnated as The Hateful Eight’s Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). And as we’ll see shortly, Basterds provides one of the most vital links between Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Tarantino’s previous filmography.
It takes little effort to connect the dots between these characters and Cliff Booth, a masculine archetype with his own capacity for viciousness. While the most different of the three by far, Cliff can be interpreted as the final evolution of the same idea. This would be poetic, then, for Cliff to be the one to help take out the Manson Family, whose leader stands as a reference point for Mickey, the beginning of the cycle.
One area where Stone breaks sharply from Tarantino’s script is that, in the initial screenplay, Mickey and Mallory are very sparingly used in terms of screentime. Instead, much of the narrative is told through news interviews, investigative journalism, recollections by survivors, tabloid TV reenactments, and scenes from a dramatized film about their exploits.
We meet many different iterations and facsimiles of who Mickey and Mallory are perceived to be, the “real” versions of them cleverly kept backstage for much of the movie. The cross-media storytelling creates several layers of narrative reality, all of them various levels of fictitious.
This method is employed throughout the entirety of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is loaded with cutaways and diversions: to past interviews and commercials with Rick, to his parts in various TV series and movies, to what The Great Escape would have looked like had he gotten the Steve McQueen role, and to Sharon Tate’s actual performance in The Wrecking Crew.
A standout example occurs while Rick films the episode of Lancer in which he’s been cast as the villain. Tarantino chooses to take us into the action as if it’s really happening, filming it like a modern movie and not in the style of a late 60's television series.
Yet the spell is occasionally broken: by directions from offscreen, and by Rick forgetting his lines. We are both immersed in the Lancer episode as if it’s the reality of the movie, but also reminded that we’re watching a work of fiction. This type of in-between space — where the larger reality of the film interacts with the scripted reality of the TV series within the film — demonstrates Tarantino’s fascination with narratives within narratives, and how they can feel as real as the main story.
It’s a thrilling experiment, playing out over the course of two scenes, one where Rick struggles with his performance and one where he nails it. We see his sheer excitement of having created something powerful, echoing Sharon’s moment earlier in the movie.
Rick Dalton is an actor, so the dissemination of his persona across various forms of media enhances the notion that he no longer knows who he is, his identity fractured . . . captured and frozen in the past as life marches onward. Tarantino weaves a complex web of Rick’s filmography and media representation to show the chasm between the perceived Rick and the actual Rick.
Natural Born Killers, Inglourious Basterds, and Hollywood form an accidental trilogy in regards to narratives operating on multiple fronts, up to and including the reality of the audience. (Another factor linking them is that all three films were shot by Robert Richardson, once Oliver Stone’s go-to cinematographer, and Tarantino’s ever since Kill Bill).
This approach of quietly breaking the fourth wall also applies to how each movie handles the question of violence. Killers acts as a Russian doll, the mayhem growing increasingly preposterous with each Xeroxed representation of a crime committed by Mickey and Mallory. But even those “true” events have a level of artificiality to their execution — rooted in the cinematic aesthetics of the 50's and 60's, as well as 70's-era exploitation filmmaking — which highlights the unreality of all aspects of the story. The entire piece serves as a meditation on how media presents, but also cannot ultimately recreate, actual violence.
Basterds, meanwhile, pulls a magnificently effective trick in its climax, where a Parisian movie theater full of Nazis are burned alive. They’re watching the premiere of a propaganda film called Nation’s Pride, laughing at the violence and cheering as the story’s hero kills Allied troops. But soon, the tables are turned, a wall of fire erupting out of the screen, almost as if the movie changed its mind and broke the fourth wall to kill them.
The scene is remarkable in that it reflects the experience of the audience actually watching Inglourious Basterds. They too have been laughing and cheering at the violence onscreen; Nation’s Pride is even filmed to have certain moments evoke events which occur in the reality of the movie. As the audience burns, they become faceless shadows trying to claw their way out of the theater.
Again, Tarantino twists the catharsis, not by asking his audience to start rooting for the Nazis, but by making this scene subconsciously aggressive towards the viewer. When the WWII narrative is stripped away, we are watching ourselves burn. In creating this one-two punch — the applause-worthy destruction of the Nazi high command and resultant rewrite of history, but with a subtext that implies the very movie we’re watching might be literally dangerous — Tarantino weaves one of the most powerful scenes in his body of work.
The ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood quite possibly one-ups Inglourious Basterds in terms of meta-narrative. Similar to Basterds, the finale draws from both the “real world” of the story as well as the “fictional” narratives within the film. But a third layer also hangs over the proceedings: the reality of history, with which only the viewer is familiar.
When Cliff and Rick kill the Mansonites, the scene recalls the staged violence we’ve already witnessed in Rick’s TV and movie appearances. Most directly, Rick’s torching of Susan Atkins is a recreation of a moment from his film The 14 Fists of McClusky.
But the violence here also differs, in the aforementioned fact that it is much bloodier and more brutal, notably in the way Cliff dispatches Patricia Krenwinkel. The two men are on one level recreating the type of violence they’ve pretended to live many times, but Cliff has also experienced non-simulated violence in the past, and that comes into play in this scene as he draws from his survival instincts and ability to kill without hesitation.
And then the audience is aware of the very real violence which ended the lives of Sharon Tate and five others that evening, something actively in our minds throughout this whole business. The tension between the unimaginable cruelty we know occurred versus this amusingly glib and exaggerated comeuppance is where this scene mines its effectiveness.
Similar to the way the cartoonish caricatures of Hitler and his ilk are eliminated during Inglourious Basterds, the deaths here are satisfying not because of any attempt at realism, but because the movie is killing our constructed idea of people whose acts psychically damaged an entire culture. It has little to do with whether we’re watching historical portrayals of Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel, and more to do with a moment of collected spiritual relief for the audience.
Adding further nuance is the unsolvable Cliff equation. Should it be true that he murdered his wife, it means that a homicidal man who hurts women has his violent plans thwarted violently by a homicidal man who hurts women, a questionable and challenging move in regards to making Sharon Tate a character in this story. Another factor is that Cliff is chemically enhanced during this scene: he’s both wasted and tripping on acid, making it unclear how much his altered state has influenced his actions.
Lastly, we have the reason Watson and his fellow cult members decide to cast their murderous gaze on Rick Dalton in the first place. Since he’s the star of violent television programs, they conclude that Rick deserves to die because their generation learned violence by seeing such images. It’s a hilariously limp, pathetic attempt at justification, but their discussion of this topic (however manic and unhinged) adds to the movie’s theme of the exchange which occurs between cinematic violence and violence in the real world.
Clearly, Tarantino does not and has never believed that movie violence causes or influences people to commit violent acts in real life. But he’s acknowledging that many different levels of fiction and subtext are converging with reality here, a complicated meta narrative if there ever was one.
The callback to The 14 Fists of McClusky feels apt given the larger context. In the (fictional) movie, Rick’s character hides behind a red curtain in the control room of the Third Reich. On cue, he bursts forth and uses the flamethrower to immolate the Nazi commanders. Not only does this connect with the climax of Inglourious Basterds and link the revenge fantasy aspects of that film with Hollywood, it’s also essentially the ending of Basterds restaged minus the subtext, leaving only the goofy but crowd-pleasing surface.
Of late, there exists one other recent work which evokes many of the themes to be found in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: director David Lynch and writer Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks revival, a limited series that aired on Showtime in 2017. Simultaneously an update, continuation, and deconstruction of their landmark ABC program — as well as Lynch’s prequel film Fire Walk With Me — the new Twin Peaks trades in many of the same themes of nostalgia, identity, and the perils of living in the past.
The original series saw FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). As Cooper slowly uncovers the secret life of Laura as well as the town of Twin Peaks at large, he begins to confront his own demons, a struggle at odds with his squeaky clean surface. In the climax of that show, Cooper enters a metaphysical realm where he encounters his shadow self, a doppelganger embodying the animalistic id and narcissistic ego buried deep within Cooper’s personality. The doppelganger escapes, leaving him trapped in limbo between worlds.
In the revival, Agent Cooper finally returns after an absence of 25 years. Unfortunately, he’s unable to resume where he left off. The world has moved on, and the transition from one dimension to another leaves Cooper with the mind of a child. Meanwhile, his double — an oily, leather-skinned criminal overlord known in some circles as Mr. C — has spent the last two-plus decades killing and terrorizing and raping his way across the globe.
Mr. C isn’t the only clone of Cooper who’s been at play since his disappearance, either. The doppelganger eventually used the same mystical process which birthed him to create his own replica. Known as Dougie Jones, this copy of a copy is a well-meaning fuckup completely in thrall to his many vices. The returned and brain damaged Cooper has swapped with this counterpart, now mistaken for Dougie and unable to explain himself.
By the final hours of the new Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper regains his physical and mental faculties, Mr. C destroyed for good. It’s here where Cooper’s ultimate goal is revealed: he means to use the magical forces at work within the town to travel back in time and save Laura Palmer, the young woman whose entire life is now equated with her death.
In the haunting, emotional pinnacle of Twin Peaks in its entirety, Cooper succeeds in his mission. The opening scene of the pilot episode replays, the dramatic weight now the absence of tragedy. Laura’s body is not found, as there’s no corpse to be discovered.
But Cooper’s plan quickly goes awry, Laura taken by the primordial darkness that dwells in the forests surrounding Twin Peaks, and which influenced her death in the first place. To retrieve her, Cooper travels into the underworld where Laura’s been imprisoned. Accompanying him is longtime friend and formerly unrequited flame Diane (Laura Dern), the two of them reunited and now lovers.
In their journey to the dark side, before they can fully reach their destination they must surrender their identities. Stopping in a spooky motel late at night, they begin to make love. As the scene continues, the sex becomes uncomfortable to watch, Cooper exponentially menacing while Diane appears afraid and violated.
Cooper awakens the next morning to learn he’s now a man named Richard. Diane has become Linda, who’s left him a goodbye note. Richard is a version of Cooper existing somewhere between the original Dale Cooper and Mr. C, the doppelganger’s darkness integrated into his personality to gain access to this illusory netherworld.
After a search, he locates Laura, living a sad life in Texas and thinking her name is Carrie Page. Cooper/Richard convinces her to return to Twin Peaks, where she can be reunited with her family and hopefully remember her former identity.
Skeptical, she agrees to go with him, mostly to skip town as she’s just killed her abusive boyfriend. Upon their arrival in Twin Peaks, she remembers nothing as they stare at what is supposedly the Palmer house. Cooper grows wobbly. “What year is this?” he asks, confused. In the closing seconds, Carrie remembers herself as Laura Palmer, the horror of her life rushing back to her. Laura screams.
A man rewrites history to save a woman whose existence is defined by her death, in doing so tapping into the darker aspect of his nature. Trapped by the pull of the past and all it represents, his motives might be more selfish than he understands.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may have a brighter sheen — and a catharsis which Twin Peaks intentionally avoids — but the parallels between the two works remain unmistakable. Both dwell on the notion of revisiting days long gone, and the double-edged sword of nostalgia.
David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino make strange bedfellows. They have no personal or professional relationship, with Tarantino offering a handful of disparaging statements about Lynch over the years. But Tarantino has also been forthright about his love of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and the original Twin Peaks, all of which heavily impacted him.
Conversely, Lynch himself has displayed no interest in Tarantino’s films or persona. Tarantino and Lynch both enjoy absurd humor and playing with the conventions of cinematic storytelling, but Lynch trends towards abstract and mystical ambiguity, surreal tangents, and nonlinear plots which sidestep direct logic, elements for which Tarantino seems to have little patience given his own meticulous sense of narrative and structure.
And yet there exists a large amount of crossover, from the manipulation of pop imagery and music, to narratives centered on organized crime, to hyperbolic presentations of extreme masculinity. Regarding the latter, Lynch has quite the pantheon in his filmography: Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth (hopefully no relation to Cliff), Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, Mr. Eddy from Lost Highway, and Cooper’s doppelganger all exist as rebel bad boys and criminal masterminds embellished to a level which could only be described as demonic.
In some cases this is literally so, such as with Killer Bob, the otherworldly presence responsible for Laura Palmer’s death. A bestial nightmare assembled from clichés of bikers and outlaws, Bob is the animalism of unrestrained human instinct, the ancient presence of the mountains and forests in Twin Peaks brought to horrifying life. The promise of Scorpio Rising fulfilled.
Lynch’s revived Twin Peaks contains numerous aesthetic and thematic overlaps with Tarantino’s work. A significant subplot takes place in Las Vegas and its gangster underworld, the production and costume design recalling the gaudy, decadent excess of the 50's & 60's, an aesthetic from which Tarantino has liberally drawn; the network of dons, henchmen, and assassins fits right at home with Tarantino’s pulp sensibilities; and in one continuing storyline, a married pair of hired killers trade barbs about fast food and trivial annoyances, their plot culminating in an act of comically random violence that could easily have been written by Quentin Tarantino himself.
The characters, Hutch and Chantal, are played by Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh, fresh off their roles in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. That film co-starred Bruce Dern, father of Laura, who stars as Diane in Twin Peaks. Hateful Eight also features James Parks, son of Michael Parks, known for his role of Jean Renault on the original Peaks series.
Some of Roth’s dialogue in Twin Peaks recalls his role as Pumpkin in Pulp Fiction, a character who, along with his partner Honey Bunny, is the third example of criminal lovers on the lam in Tarantino’s early work, following Clarence & Alabama from True Romance and Mickey & Mallory. Though the most obvious inspiration for these duos is Bonnie and Clyde, they also have roots in Sailor and Lula, the star-crossed pair at the center of Lynch’s Wild at Heart.
Similar to Rick, Agent Cooper’s identity is fractured and scattered, albeit in a much more literal fashion. Throughout Twin Peaks we encounter many different iterations: the older and wiser man who’s missed most of his life; the younger version we remember from the original series; his dark side, Mr. C; Dougie, Mr. C’s carnality watered down into a more dimwitted version; the childlike reborn Cooper, mistaken for Dougie; another version of Dougie, this one generated from Cooper’s kindheartedness; and Richard, Cooper’s netherworld alter ego which incorporates Mr. C into the matrix of his larger being.
The character of Dale Cooper has always existed as a near parodic example of old fashioned masculinity: protective, chivalric, honest, dutiful, bound by oaths, violent when necessary. He’s the type of person who will shoot the bad guy and then remind you to brush your teeth and get plenty of sleep on weeknights.
But Cooper seems too good to be true because he is. His white knight syndrome and compulsive need to save troubled women typically result in either their death or ruination. He also carries with him a casual, old-fashioned sexism that might be at home in something like Mad Men, in one deleted scene flirting with Diane and gently commanding that she make a pot of coffee for the office (staffed by male FBI agents), then blowing her a kiss. The moment rings both naively sweet and creepily archaic.
These factors do not negate Cooper’s genuine compassion, moral concern, and spiritual conscientiousness, but they demonstrate the flaws inherent in such a rigidly noble form of masculinity.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood joins Lynch’s update of Twin Peaks as a major work of pop art which indulges nostalgia for times long gone, but takes apart that very nostalgia. Rick and Cliff represent a different era, one with its own charms but also its own pronounced weaknesses, those drawbacks expressed within their characters.
(click below for Part 3)